The combination of onions and sumac cooked in olive oil is one of the most traditional and uniquely Palestinian flavours you will ever come across. The combination is sublime: it makes you want to go back for another bite … and another … and another. In this recipe, which is more common in the northern part of Palestine, the onions and spices are cooked with chicken, and sometimes potatoes, in a roasting pan. The word mhammar can mean both roasted and red, and aptly refers to the use of paprika, which lends the dish a distinct reddish colour. It makes a perfect weeknight dinner, as it can be oven-ready in less than 15 minutes.

Serves 4-6
chicken pieces 1.25 kg (about 4 whole legs or 6 skin-on breasts)
onions 6-7 medium (about 600-800g), diced
potatoes 3-5 smallish (about 300-700g), cut into rounds (optional)
sweet paprika 3 tbsp
sumac 2 tbsp
ground cumin 1 tbsp
nine-spice mix 1 tsp (see below)
salt 1 tbsp
olive oil 3-4 tbsp
pine nuts 2 tbsp, toasted, to serve
pitta bread to serve (if not using potatoes), homemade or store-bought (optional)

For the nine-spice mix (makes about 100g)
allspice berries 6 tbsp
cassia bark or cinnamon sticks 6
coriander seeds 3 tbsp
black peppercorns 1 tbsp
cardamom seeds 1 tsp
cumin seeds Ĺ tsp
cloves 10
mace 2 blades
nutmeg Ĺ, crushed

To make the nine-spice mix, place all the ingredients in a large frying pan over medium-low heat. Stir with a wooden spoon periodically to ensure the spices do not burn, until you begin to smell the aroma of the spices, about 10 minutes.

Remove the pan from heat and set aside to cool completely, about 1 hour. This step is crucial because if the spices are not cooled properly, they will form a paste when ground rather than a powder.

Place all the roasted spices into a heavy-duty spice grinder and grind until you achieve a fine powder consistency. Store the spice mix in an airtight container. It will keep for several months although the aroma will fade with time.

Preheat the oven to 180C/gas mark 4.

Put the chicken, onions and potatoes, if using, into a greased or non-stick, deep roasting dish.

In a small bowl, mix together all the spices, salt and olive oil until evenly combined. Pour the mixture into the roasting dish and use your hands to work the spice rub evenly into the onions, chicken and potatoes. Make sure the chicken pieces are not crowding each other and that they are skin side up.

Add 120ml water to the tray, cover with aluminium foil, and bake in the oven for 1-1ľ hours until the chicken is fully cooked. Check once or twice during cooking to make sure the liquid has not entirely evaporated and top up with more water if necessary. You do not want the dish to be completely dry but you also do not want a soup, more of a gravy sauce coating the onions.

Once the chicken is cooked, remove the foil and increase the oven temperature (or preheat the grill) to its highest setting. Continue to cook for another 5-10 minutes to allow the chicken skin to crisp up. Remove from the oven and allow to sit for 5 minutes before serving. Sprinkle with toasted pine nuts and serve with pitta bread, if desired.